Young influencer Mike Schwartz of Image Systems Group has succeeded in sales by learning how to respond affirmatively to customer needs.
When Mike Schwartz was growing up, the question of whether he’d join the family business wasn’t “obviously” or “no matter what.” Mike had to hear that “yes” coming from the little voice inside his head first. It was important to Mike, as well as to his father Art Schwartz, founder of Image Systems Group in Somerset, New Jersey, that the choice be a step toward Image Systems, not just away from other things.
The question with any family business is would you work there if you weren’t family? For Mike, the question turned out to be a resounding yes. Now, at age 31, Mike is a senior account manager and dedicated to growing the company the same way his father has, one client at a time.
Image Systems Group, founded in 1987, is a business based on the idea of “yes.” In the 1980s, Art was living in Delaware and working for a large dealership based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that was strong on sales and weak on customer service. Schwartz got tired of seeing the client relationships he worked hard to build up fall apart because of “no.” No, they couldn’t send a repair tech out right away. No, they didn’t have a part for that. No, they didn’t know why the client shouldn’t just take their business elsewhere.
Intent on creating a better customer experience, Art set off on his own to start a new business with a plan to grow only when he could expand the customer support in line with sales. Image Systems is designed from the ground up to always be able to say yes, we can fix that. Yes, we’ll be right there. And Mike has absorbed all of those lessons.
“When my father was at his old company, before he started Image Systems, it was a more transactional business and not a very good servicing organization,” he said. “It got to the point where his customers were crossing the street to avoid him because the service was very poor. So he started this business out of necessity.”
The copier business was a big part of Mike’s daily life growing up, even though he never played a direct role in it. He recalled how his mother would be sitting at the dining room table in the early days doing the finances.
“Throughout my whole life, copier talk was interjected into a lot of car rides and conversations,” said Mike, who despite all that copier talk, had his sights set elsewhere.
A trip to visit his older brother at medical school in sunny Miami helped solidify Mike’s college plans. He wanted to be as far away from New Jersey’s winters as possible. He enrolled at the University of Central Florida as a marketing major, but he realized sophomore year that he wasn’t being challenged as much as he’d like. He’d taken a few finance classes and enjoyed them, so in his junior year, he switched his major to finance with a minor in marketing.
While attending college, Mike worked for a startup marketing company, which provided him with some early foundational knowledge on search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing. This knowledge gave him an edge when he started working at Image Systems because those skills were not commonly found at the time in office technology dealerships.
Even college courses that may not have seemed as though they would have directly translated to the office technology industry have helped Mike see the bigger picture.
“The best class I ever took was a derivatives course,” he said. “It taught me the concept of two totally different markets being correlated in value, like how fuel prices would be correlated to home heating oil, so an airline company might hedge their jet fuel costs by placing bets in the market on home heating oil. It was fascinating to me, the chain reaction between industries like that.”
Understanding the big picture scope of influences on demand has helped Mike carve out an edge in this ever more competitive industry.
As a millennial, Mike had a front-row seat for the definitive financial event of his generation, the 2008 financial meltdown.
“My senior year, we literally stopped using textbooks in half my classes,” recounted Mike. “We were doing classes based on what was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That became class material. My instructors were seriously at a loss for words, saying, “˜We’ve never seen this before.’ So that was interesting.”
As unexpectedly fascinating as his time in college ended up being, Mike had the misfortune to graduate into the worst job market in recent memory.
“I was living in Orlando, my lease was up, and I was interviewing at all these places where it was just sales, sales, sales,” said Mike.
Nothing felt like a good fit, not in the new business paradigm he’d spent his senior year studying, analyzing, and taking to heart hard lessons from. The market crash had people running scared, but Mike knew from a lifetime of learning from his father’s example that companies that only focused on landing the next sale weren’t built to survive this new, harsher financial landscape.
“I thought, if I learned all this, why not try and pay it forward to my family?” said Mike.
He started at Image Systems in 2009 and put his marketing background to use right away, implementing SEO, email campaigns, Google Ad buys, and watching Image Systems climb up the page search rankings. In a still struggling economy and with college loans breathing down his neck, those sales commission checks that Image Systems’ sales reps were getting started looking better and better.
“I was only nine months in when I said I wanted to try out sales, and I knew my dad was supportive of that because the very next day I had a cubicle and a manager,” said Mike.
He’s learned a lot since then. He can rattle off stats for all of Image Systems’ most exciting products, including the Konica Minolta ColorPRESS series, Epson’s color plotters, or the Xerox Versant with the enthusiasm and depth of knowledge of a baseball-card collector showing off his rookie Topps finds, but at 22 it was a different story.
“A lot of sales comes down to personality and that was the only thing I had going for me,” recalled Mike. “I had never had an outside sales position before. My boss at my inside sales job in college might have been 26 at the time, which seemed so old. He’d put me on cold calls, maybe following a lead from a trade show, and I was like, holy crap! You have to answer questions and [your responses] have to be really quick.”
At Image Systems, Mike’s manager was a 22-year veteran of the industry and patient enough to show a green recent grad the ropes. Early on, even selling a single machine felt like a monumental victory to Mike.
“The holy grail was finding somebody who was ready to lease a copy machine,” he said. “If I found someone looking for two or three machines, I’d think, what am I going to do with this opportunity?”
Mike’s manager helped him understand data collection and the importance of fact-finding with the customer, as well as pricing out solutions and calculating the margin on a sale.
Today, Mike has a body of real-world education to complement his college education, and it’s easier for him to see what he learned that had value.
“I pulled out an old hard drive from college and looked at some old course material and all the concepts still remain true, like brand value,” said Mike. “The value of trust that somebody puts into a brand, whether it’s your dealership or a brand of copier or printer, the classroom can introduce these concepts, but I don’t think you can apply them until you’re with someone who’s putting their money on the line to purchase something.”
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